Make Sure to Notice Pivot Opportunities
(Originally published in the August 30, 2015 Crain’s Cleveland Business by John Campanelli)
Lonnie Johnson, a nuclear and aerospace engineer, loved to tinker at home while his wife and kids slept.
One night in 1982, after his day job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, he began testing nozzles for an invention — a refrigeration heat pump — that he hoped could use water instead of Freon.
“I was machining some nozzles and experimenting at home and shot some streams of water into the sink,” Johnson told public radio last year. “Then I turned and shot across the bathroom where I was doing these experiments, and I thought to myself, “Geez, this would make a neat water gun.’”
Johnson was smart enough to not let the idea disappear down the drain, so to speak. He stopped work on the heat pump and began building a prototype of what would eventually become the Super Soaker. Johnson could have easily marveled at that water spray, shook his head … and then returned to his work on the pump. That’s what most of us would have done. Instead, he recognized an opportunity, pivoted and took a detour, a very lucrative detour. (Sales of his invention have topped $1 billion.)
It’s an important story.
Most of us are so good at planning our businesses. We define a mission, perfect a product or service, craft a budget, target a market and then go.
And as we go, we encounter some distracting ideas — a strong water spray, for example, or a new line of business or a new technology. When that happens, the temptation is to stay the course and tell ourselves, “We don’t do that. That’s not us.”
But in business, the best places are often off the map. And you get there by having the courage to sometimes deviate from the plan.
It’s worked for Cleveland attorney Phil Ciano. When he and partner Andrew Goldwasser launched Ciano & Goldwasser in 2000, they planned to focus their law firm on high-end personal-injury class actions.
Three months in, a close friend, a surgeon, decided to switch hospitals and knew he’d need some legal help.
“He said, “I want to hire you to do this. It’s going to be contentious. But I know you’re my guy. I trust you,’” Ciano remembers.
A tiny problem: Neither attorney had any experience in health care.
Instead of saying, “We can’t do it. That’s not us,” they decided to ask themselves, “How can we do it? Can it be us?”
Today, health care law is a core part of Ciano’s practice. The firm also does work in areas the founders never imagined, including business divorce and sports law. Each time, they were offered a detour. They pivoted, and they succeeded.
“The stars keep moving and shifting,” Ciano says. “You keep working your butt off and then — boom — one opportunity leads to another.”
The stories of “happy accidents” in business are sometimes held in awe, as if they are rare. Truth is, we are all presented with the “accidents.” It’s the ability to recognize an opportunity, jump on it and turn it into something “happy” that’s rare.
Opening that part of the mind isn’t easy. But it’s crucial. Because if a competitor is somehow able to climb out of the weeds, spot a detour and seize an innovation, well, then we’re in a battle for our livelihood — armed with only a squirt gun.